Saturday, 24 October 2009

The Rise of Women Artists @ Walker Art Gallery

Lady artistes seems to be in vogue at the moment. Angels of Anarchy is making waves over at Manchester Art Gallery, and, apparently timed to coincide with their Bridget Riley micro-retrospective, Walker Art Gallery presents The Rise of Women Artists.

Though prominently asking questions - Does the gender of an artist matter? Should artists be labelled? Are decorative arts any less significant than paintings? - this exhibition stoically refuses to make any kind of argument. It is like a rather earnest, rambling, but not well developed, discussion of the possibilities art holds for the fairer sex.

Frankly, for me, the whole thing got off to a pretty poor start. Right by the entrance, a corner of tapestry seems to imply needle work was automatically creative art and the women who practised this craft automatically artists. To begin an exhibition with such a un-nuanced and wrong footed statement doesn’t inspire. At the end of the day, even though undoubtedly some women found creative output in stitching dainty napkins, isn’t it a bit like stating that all children working in Primarni sweatshops are somehow fashion designers?

Laying aside the oppressive curatorial notes, this is both a beautiful and pointless exhibition. Beautiful, because it brings together an incongruous collection of art and objects from a broad selection of periods and practises, with nothing more than the impossibly broad remit of gender. Pointless, because it evokes one of my favourite types of gallery space: those small regional collections where works are placed together without the stifling dependency on movements, periods and themes. Art for enjoyment, rather than didactically forced interpretation.

If this exhibition serves to illuminate anything, rather than the subject of females who make stuff, it is the tension between art and culture. Teapots and needlework may not be art, but they are certainly cultural objects. Neither, I'm certain, is it historically accurate to designate the decorative arts as women's work. It’s just unfortunate that this delicious oscillation has to be sidelined by a clumsy faux-wave-feminist essay.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Fantasies, Follies and Disasters: The Prints of Francisco de Goya @ Manchester Art Gallery

There is perhaps only one thing which could rival my post Manchester Blog Awards hangover this morning for sheer warped horror and disturbing folly.

I mean, of course, the prints of Goya.

On my last visit to Manchester I ducked into Manchester Art Gallery, and managed to edge my way into the crowded Fantasies, Follies and Disasters: The Prints of Francisco de Goya.

I remember when I first saw one of his prints, perhaps during my first year at university. It was like I could not comprehend what I was seeing. It’s odd that I was so shocked, one of my earliest art memories is pawing over a book of Hieronymus Bosch paintings in late toddlerhood. So why are these prints so much more shocking?

We all know that the playful horror of his prints are embedded in a very real social/historical/political situation. The scenes are not purely imagined, for all the strange witches and winged creatures. There is a reality to the images which seems to smash against reason, threatening the comfortable solid institutional surroundings of Manchester Art Gallery. They are the falling man of the 17th Century.

The medium lends Goya’s representations further hysterical power. It’s one thing for an unsettled mind to set down on paper something so horrifying, but to carefully create for reproduction is something else. It is just too calculated to figure into our current understanding of artistic practice. Just as the images undermine our faith in society's innate goodness and stability, they rankle against our snug understanding of the consumable nature of reproductive art. These images are not for bedroom walls and postcards to relatives, unless you are a member of the Adams Family.

The Chapman Brother’s gruesome micro-sculptures Disasters of War are the perfect addition to this compulsive exhibition. The toy vignettes of Goya’s horrifying scenes lend to the unsettling atmosphere. It is like thinking for one moment you glimpsed a severed finger in a packet of pink wafer biscuits. It’ll be a while before you’ll be completely happy tucking into pink wafery goodness. You’ll never be able to look at a toy solider casually again, and the idea of old men marking out historical battles with tin figurines takes on a bloody, calculated air.

This is not an easy exhibition, there is something car crash like about it. You leave feeling as though you have been rubber necking. It seems to reveal the innate instability of society, lifting the skirt of our comfortable lives and revealing a rotten, rickety pair of legs beneath. It is both compelling and compulsive, and has left me thoughtful and moved.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2009 @ The Cornerhouse

The aspect which links all the works in Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2009, currently at Cornerhouse, is a certain lack of depth. It feels like a vaneer of art, rather than a well rounded exhibition. To me it is apparent that the content we are presented with is not art as practise, or art as product, but art as produce. It’s the equivalent of a biggest vegetable competition at a country show. There is only so much you can be impressed by a marrow, how ever bloody big, shiny and perfectly formed it is.

The issue is that New Contemporaries feels like a very glossy degree show, which in many ways is exactly what it is. The best bits are attractive competent demonstrations of art by rote, like Barbara Wolff’s photography/painting/textile works. The gauche and embarrassing reaches it’s pinnacle in Hannes Ribarits painful video The Void, but is supported by numerous works which are simply just utterly unimpressive.

This show left me feeling unaffected and slightly bored. Yes, often technically brilliant and theoretically solid, but lacking something important in both its components and composition.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Bridget Riley Flashback @ Walker Art Gallery

So disgusted was I by the hoards of painting photographers that I forgot my primary purpose for wandering down to the Walker on Sunday. Although I fully intended to have a good ol’ explore, I mainly wanted to see what was going on with the Bridget Riley exhibition.

Now, I’m not a particular fan of Riley. She’s one of those archetypal artists, like Rothko, that you cannot escape having encountered during secondary school art class. “This is Op Art,” Ms. Bull would dutifully explain,”doesn’t it make your eyes go funny.”

The first thing I noticed was that the exhibition was startlingly small. The reading room, come biography gallery, was at least half the size of the space dedicated to the exhibition itself. Although containing some wonderful large scale canvases, the number of sketches and studies makes me feel as if the curator desperately needed to take up space. This isn’t particularly endearing when it was quite a small space to begin with.

However, just because this does not feel like the major exhibition we’ve been promised, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. The whole thing works as quite a nice little taster of Riley’s catalogue. The scintillating, depth-less beauty of her canvases work well when compared to each other.

Riley’s trademark hypnotic abstraction is pleasantly incongruous in the wonderful trad-collection of the Walker Art Gallery.

(... and I only saw one person taking a photograph of a painting, and they looked suitably, forgivably sheepish.)

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Photography in Art Galleries

Today I went to have a pleasant Sunday afternoon wander around Walker Art Gallery. I adore this type of gallery, the comforting provenance of the place and the encompassing and incongruous collection makes me feel right at home.

Standing in the sculpture gallery, surrounded by sinewless alabaster bodies with globular unfocused eyes, watching a small oriental man photograph everything in sight, I had an almost disorientating sense of déjà vu. I was momentarily transported back to that odd time two years ago when I worked as a gallery assistant at Gunther Van Hagens' Body Worlds. Although photography was strictly forbidden, it was a constant battle with the public. They seemed compelled the touch and photograph the bodies, often becoming quite combative when challenged.

A little later, while having a wander through the John Moore’s winners, three Spanish tourists were systematically photographing every painting in the gallery. Barely pausing to look at what they were snapping, they moved briskly from painting to painting, capturing each in shoddy digital renderings. Another room, another person was photographing, and in the next the same again. On this early Sunday afternoon, the photographers seemed to out number the lookers.

Now, Walker Art Gallery allows photography. I have no issue with that decision. I know how almost impossible it is to stop people. What I question is why people feel the need to almost systematically photograph every painting their eye falls upon?

It has become a fact of our contemporary age, that when disaster strikes, people film and photograph. The statement that photographers felt compelled to place the camera between themselves and the unfolding horrors, such as during 9/11, has become a truism. Is it this which makes people feel they must photograph every painting on display? Like disaster, must art be mitigated by the lens?

Perhaps I have become a very angry person. I felt a deep disgust for those who could not refrain from touching the corpses, and this disgust is mingled with pity for those who seem unable to look at a work of art. I doubt these people are taking away their photographs and tenderly looking at them later. What else can these photographs do but evoke the experience of looking at the artwork and if they barely looked at the art work, what is the point of it all?

Britain has become very good at shedding taboos, bum sex and homosexuality are positively trendy. I’m a fan of both. A permissive society is generally understood to be a good thing. However, just because it’s allowed by rule, like ugly men with far right politics, does it mean we shouldn’t frown and say something? Personally, I’d like to thump both photographers and fascists round the back of the head, but I probably won’t. I think we should all just participate in a campaign of frowning and hushed mumbling, just so those pesky photographers understand what they are doing may be technically okay, but so they feel like the twats they are.

Let’s create a new taboo: the casual painting photographer. Who’s with me?

Friday, 2 October 2009

Apichatpong Weerasethaku's Primitive @ FACT, Liverpool

It would be easy to become preoccupied by the screen which shows rhythmic blasts of lightening smashing into the ground, spitting down in domestic scenes of village, graveyard and temple. Taking over one wall in FACT's Gallery 1, even if you make a concerted effort to study the other scenes depicted on the other walls, the white flashes draw you back. The screen showing young men firing semi-automated weapons through windows at unseen targets verges on the mundane when placed next (as it is) to those violent cracks of light and sound.

I guess this is just one way in which Apichatpong's installation touches on the idea of the Primitive. Skipping between perception of past, present and future, this work is both grim and playful.

In the gallery, dominated by a structure which oscillates between being an eminently practical thing to hold video projectors, guard tower and spaceship, you can create your own narrative from the films we are presented with. Instead of following a narrative prescribed by the author, the viewer can become editor, swapping our attention between video feeds and creating something for ourselves. It's a simple and generous device, I like it.

Upstairs in Gallery 2, the Primitive (Nabua Song) seems disposable when compared to the fantasy documentary A Letter to Uncle Boonmee. Displaying a intriguing circular narrative that puts Tarantino to shame, this film tells a story in whispered hints. It is a softly spoken work. Good for a Sunday afternoon after your cat has just been run over.

P.S. Look out for the ghoul.

P.P.S. Doesn't Damien Hirst sound like a twat in the Radio 4 Front Row promo.